Friday, 31 July 2015

Book Review: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20629795-a-wild-sheep-chaseWhen after many years an old friend turns up from nowhere all of a sudden, be it in person or through an object or words reviving the memory of him or her, it can be a joyful, an unpleasant or even a disturbing experience. This is because such an unexpected reapparition usually evokes a past long done with, maybe almost forgotten or not voluntarily remembered. Sometimes it also gives rise to speculations about what the friend has been up to during all those years out of sight and about the reasons why s/he emerges just now. In A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami a letter from a friend of his youth known by the sobriquet “Rat” and the photo of a sheep herd on a mountain pasture send the nameless narrator off into a big adventure on a mysterious farm in Northern Hokkaidō.

Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹) was born in Kyōto, Japan, in January 1949. He studied drama in Tōkyō and opened a Jazz club with his wife after graduation. Only several years later, in 1978, he wrote his prize-winning debut novel Hear the Wind Sing (風の歌を聴け) published in 1979. Two sequels to it, Pinball, 1973 (1973年のピンボール) and A Wild Sheep Chase (羊をめぐる冒険), came out in 1980 and 1982 respectively. An independent follow-up to The Trilogy of the Rat is the novel Dance, Dance, Dance (ダンス・ダンス・ダンス) from 1988. The most notable novels of the bestselling author, who has repeatedly been rumoured as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, are Norwegian Wood (ノルウェイの森: 1987), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (ねじまき鳥クロニクル: 1994/95), Kafka on the Shore (海辺のカフカ: 2002), After Dark (アフターダーク: 2004), and 1Q84 (2009/10). He also wrote a considerable number of short stories and essays and translated important literary works from English into Japanese. His latest published book is a short story collection titled 女のいない男たち (2014; Men Without Women) not yet available in English translation. Murakami Haruki lives in Ōiso, Kanagawa, Japan.

The nameless first-person narrator of A Wild Sheep Chase is twenty-nine years old and the co-founder of a small translating business in Tōkyō that has grown into a thriving advertising agency, but his heart is no longer in it. In fact, his life has become such dull routine that he feels as if nothing exciting or important could still lie ahead. On 29 December 1977 he receives a letter from a friend called “Rat” whom he hasn’t seen for ten years and in May 1978 another letter in which he is asked two favours. Firstly, the friend begs him to pass on his good-bye to Jay, the owner of the bar where they used to hang about, and to the woman who was his lover five years earlier when he left town in a hurry. Secondly, he wants the narrator to see to it that the attached black-and-white picture of a sheep herd is published. A few days later he sets out to comply with the first wish of his old friend. Summer passes. The narrator is divorced from his wife who left him in spring and soon falls under the spell of the most beautiful ears that he has ever seen although he only knows the photos. He tracks down the woman and they become lovers. Her ears are not only beautiful, though, they also give her clairvoyant powers. So one night she foretells that the phone will ring and that it will be about sheep. As it turns out, his friend’s photo of the sheep herd, which the narrator used in a corporate newsletter of a life insurance company, shows a sheep with a star on its back that the dying boss of the Japanese shadow powers has been looking for everywhere. To save his skin the narrator has to find the sheep… and “Rat” whom he suspects to be on the island of Hokkaidō. And thus the actual chase begins.

It is impossible to pin A Wild Sheep Chase down to a genre because it is a skilful mixture of several and very different ones. In fact, there are just as many characteristics of popular detective and adventure stories as there are of tales about ghosts and possession or of the novels belonging to the movements of surrealism and magical realism. Moreover, the book contains quite some social criticism of modern times (the late 1970s) and the changes they imply in cities, in rural areas and in society which is a feature that I always appreciate lot. The novel is also said to parody Natsuko’s Adventure by Yukio Mishima, but since I do not know this one (yet), I am in no position to tell whether this is true or not. Certainly, Haruki Murakami shows a considerable taste for irony and the grotesque in the twists and turns of his plot as well as in the characters who people it. The scene of the story, however, is drawn from reality and depicted with such great precision that fans managed to identify the sheep farm in fictitious Junitaki as Matsuyama Farm in Bifuka, Hokkaidō. I read a German translation of the book and found it a quick and easy read despite the many more or less obvious references to English and American literature, notably the stories of Sherlock Holmes and Moby Dick.

All things considered, A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami has been much more to me than a light and entertaining read to close my day. I enjoyed it a lot although there are some passages that left me a bit at a loss because I could not make out why they were included in the story after all. However, those who like it surrealistic and bizarre will love this early novel of the now famous Japanese author. In other words: I recommend it!

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4 comments:

  1. I often find passages which leave me a bit at a loss; so glad I'm not the only one! A quote of his which helped me accept this is that he said he wants his readers to be "wide open to possibility". I think he "gives us permission" to interpret the book for our own thoughts and lives. I suspect there will be renewed interest in this particular book after the release of Wind/Pinball in a few days.

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    1. Yes, his novels leave a lot of room for interpretation! I would have liked to go more into detail about different aspects of this one and their meaning - like the fact that both "Rat" and the nameless narrator are just under thirty -, but at the same time I wished to keep it short...

      New German editions of Wind/Pinball have just been released, so I guess also here A Wild Sheep Chase will get into the focus of readers again.

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  2. Loved this book & was quite happy to follow even through areas I wasn't sure of, with the understanding the journey would be worth it.

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    1. It's true that sometimes just reading without asking to understand everything is the greatest pleasure. Thanks for your comment!

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